Saturday, 3 November 2012

Inspector Montalbano – why it's the best show on TV

Luca Zingaretti as Montalbano. Pics: BBC
As Inspector Montalbano comes to his last couple of mysteries on BBC4, blogger and writer Pat Nurse reveals why she adores the Sicilian detective and will miss it when this series ends…

Forensic pathologist Dr Pasquale cries in irritation, 'Montalbano, Montalbano, Montalbano', when asked by the inspector what killed the hapless victim that lies dead before them in each episode – but I find myself repeating the name enthusiastically as I get ready on Saturday evenings for Montalbano night. Pasta, glass of vino and time to watch the best one hour and 50 minutes on TV all week.

Inspector Montalbano is sexist, melodramatic, and decidedly un-PC, but it's also charming, melodic and intriguing.

It's a sort of 70s Sweeney, Italian style, but with culture, manners and love. Like Regan and Carter in their male-dominated office, Montalbano, Augello and Fazio solve crimes the old- fashioned way using instinct and informants. There is not a computer in sight in the Commisario's office.

Montalbano may let the villain off
The only other common factor between the gritty, British urban cop show of 40 years ago and the modern parochial Italian police drama is the dominance of male characters in important roles, and women as eye candy, sex objects, and the cause of most ills.

And it is love that is at the heart of the murders investigated by Inspector Montalbano, who may look the other way if the criminal has done the wrong thing but for the right moral reasons. He is human after all.

Remaining episodes on BBC4
  • The Potter's Field, Saturday, 3 November, 9pm – A plastic bag containing a body cut into pieces is found in a clay field and all the signs point to an old-fashioned Mafia killing. However, Montalbano's colleague and friend Mimi Augello takes a sudden interest and his mood swings arouse suspicion that he may be involved.
  • Treasure Hunt, Saturday 10 November, 9pm – A disturbed maniac is playing a macabre game of treasure hunt with the inspector.
Unlike US crime dramas such as CSI, there is no clinical examination of evidence through close up gory shots defining the case in minute detail for a team of detectives who react as professionals and not humans. We rarely see their private lives, or their fears and weaknesses and it's hard to imagine Grissom outside of his office. I often wonder if actually he ever goes home or has a home to go to.

Serial shagger of female witnesses
Montalbano, on the other hand, is human to the core. He has faults, he acts  unprofessionally at times and appears to be a serial shagger of female witnesses in the latest series with long-standing girlfriend Livia away in Genoa – and not apparently caring what the man she says she loves is up to behind her back.

The women are not independent Scott & Bailey types who take the lead or stand alongside men in investigations. They have traditional Italian roles. 'Good girls' are loyal and pure but 'bad girls' – even transsexuals – get men into trouble or break their hearts. That doesn't mean they are weak or oppressed – far from it. They are feisty, demonstrative and really do scare the hell out of their men as could be seen in last week's episode, The Gull's Dance, when an angry wife gave away the secret hiding place of her husband in a fit of rage on hearing that he had had an affair with the said transsexual lover.

Melodrama surrounds the female characters, while men are a little more reserved . When little Salvo goes missing in August Flame, for example, Augello's wife, Beba, goes into full dramatic mode and over-plays the grief with lots of hand gestures, facial expressions and faints – but then my mother was Italian and melodrama was her middle name, so maybe it's a cultural thing.

The Mystery of the Terracotta Dog
I'm a sucker for a good love story and that combined with nostalgia means I'm sold. One of my favourite episodes of the last series was The Mystery of the Terracotta Dog – a real adventure set in a cave from the lost age of the 1940s when much in Sicily and the rest of world was very different to now.

However, that said, shots of Montalbano in the Sicilian countryside look remarkably the same as when Michael Corleone wandered the hills in The Godfather Part II.

The lush scenery draws me in as much as the plot and I sometimes find I've switched off from the subtitles to admire what is in the background – the old crumbling stone buildings, the gloriously bright harbour, blue sea, narrow streets and classical architecture. An Italian cousin tells me that those same streets in reality are not devoid of traffic except when Montalbano is filming, but no matter. It is still a place on my to-visit list.

Caterella and Augello The characters make me smile – especially Catarella, who is the police station jester. He is loyal, hard-working and clumsy, if sometimes really annoying. I often wonder if he is on a work-experience programme as he appears to be a mostly useless police officer. However, even he has his moments, such as when he solved a crime based on how much sheep dung there was was around an old farmhouse.

I'd like to see him developed more. How would he have reacted and what change would it have brought upon him if he had been kidnapped and almost murdered like poor honourable Fazio last week? I guess I should be careful what I wish for. Such a change would probably ensure that Caterella's comedy relief would be tempered by a more serious attitude after experiencing such a trauma.

Augello is a self-obsessed womaniser who relishes the opportunity to sleep with a suspect in The Track of Sand and cheat on his wife in the name of a job well done. He has been jealous of Montalbano's connection with female suspects he has his eye on. Perhaps we British don't fully understand reference to women as 'bella', which doesn't necessarily mean they are beautiful, but have the qualities and etiquette demanded under the Italian philosophy of Bella Figura.

Luca Zingaretti
My absolute favourite character, of course, is Montalbano himself played by the gorgeous Luca Zingaretti, who I am told has quite a female fan base among older women of my age, and his. There are only two more episodes left in the series and I wonder what I'll watch on Saturday nights, and in place of the repeats on Tuesday nights, in future. Both have been great for helping me to sharpen up my very limited Italian language and learn new words and phrases as I see and hear them in action.

One thing's for sure, when Inspector Montalbano ends, the sun will stop shining in the cold, dark and grey British Winter for at least a couple of hours each week and the escape found in the Montalbano mysteries will be firmly planted back closer to reality and the gory reality of modern clinical murder investigation cop shows where everything is done by the boring book.